A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Made by hand

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
                                                                                                                  - William Morris

      I find myself thinking about the above quote in the run-up to the holidays as I inevitably have joined in the consumer frenzy of shopping for gifts. I think a person could scarcely avoid it at this time of year, as everywhere one looks—from our inboxes to store windows—there are gift suggestions galore. This also happens to be the month that Mike and I take away from our homestead in Missouri to rejoin urban civilization: our chance to stock up on certain home essentials that we don’t have ready access to in our rural community back home. So what do I know to be useful or believe to be beautiful? How does a person discern what that is amidst all the excess commercial crap that gluts the aisles (and our homes) around us?

     I think this question has become increasingly hard for me to answer with a child in the picture. She craves and needs new stimulus, experiences and objects to learn by, and I don’t quite have a sense of discernment honed in about what makes for an interesting, useful toy—one that “we can get some mileage from” as my neighbor Teri puts it. Caris is beginning to be the age where she will point to anything in a store appropriately color-coded as kid material with an enthusiastic, “dat one! Dat one mama!” Until I pick it up and hand it to her (temporarily), or maneuver us safely out of sight. Truth be told, before she was born, I always dreamed of making her toys, and books, and clothes—her very world—much like I have taken on making just about everything else in our house. But several half finished baby sweaters and a headless doll speak for themselves… it is simply much harder to find time to be a maker once one is a parent.

Carding wool before spinning it
Brian at his forge

Brian's dinner bell-- AcornHillHandcrafts.com

Cynthia's handmade broom
         Though there is a small ache in my heart each time I let go of a project I wish I had the time for, I am learning to celebrate the small amount of making I still do have in my life, as well as the beauty of handmade objects from others makers. Our friend Cynthia recently gave us one of her handmade brooms, for example. Our friend Ian’s blacksmithed candle-holder graces our wall. I never did find time to make Caris a baby quilt, but my Aunt Jane did, and I felt the love she poured into it each time I swaddled her in it. At a friend’s wedding recently, I admired her stunning beaded and sequined dress, only to learn it was made by her aunt. There are small acts of making everywhere, care and craft spent giving form to raw materials: ingredients turned into meals, wool spun and knitted into hats, wood whittled into a spoon. To me, this is love manifesting itself, and I deeply honor each choice to make instead of simply click and purchase. But the life of a maker is not easy in this day and age.

Cynthia Main coopering a barrel

My father making beeswax candles
      Our friend Cynthia, another talented maker (see sunhousecraft.com to check out her incredible craft work), and I were lamenting this a few weeks ago. We live in a world now where pretty much anything that could be handmade can be made much more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently in a factory elsewhere. This definitely decreases the need for makers in our society: a whole range of once livelihoods are now the stuff of hobbies. My mother and her sisters grew up making their own clothes each year before school started—sharing patterns, buying cloth and notions, and excitedly wearing their new creations to school. This arrangement was born out of necessity, but it led to their being the creative, talented, craftswomen they are today. My mother taught my sister and I to sew as well, and I was eight when I made my first outfit (a faux jean skirt and reversible matching vest, tre chic!) I have been occasionally making my own clothes since, but somewhere between now and then, the economics of it all shifted and it has become cheaper to buy clothes instead of making them. By the time you purchase the fabric, pattern, etc., you might be on par with what a pricier piece of clothing costs new. The same holds true for almost every other craft form. It is hard to compete with a world of cheap, factory-made things intended to be disposed of after a few seasons.

     So year after year what I find to be enduringly beautiful (and useful!) in my house are the handmade items—the art on my walls, the furniture and cutting boards, the quilts, the ceramics, the forged drawer pulls and towel rods, the brooms, the whittled spoons, the hand knit sweaters, and so on. I look around and see the effort of people I love in these objects, their hands transforming the materials into function and beauty. So in this season of darkness, awaiting the return of light, what better way to spend the chilly evenings than in a small act of creation, lit by the warm flame of a hand-dipped beeswax candle?

Sarah and her daughter Etta painting by candlelight